South Africa's last hardline white president, P.W. Botha, was embroiled in a censorship row on Wednesday after broadcasters refused to air his first interview in more than a decade.
The arch-defender of apartheid broke his silence in an hour-long interview, touching on Nelson Mandela, F.W. de Klerk and the new South Africa, which was to be broadcast to coincide with his 90th birthday last week. But the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) did not transmit the program, prompting accusations of political interference by the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which appoints the board.
The row has vaulted the Afrikaner Groot Krokodil -- the big crocodile -- back into the spotlight a decade after he retreated to the solitude of Die Anker, a riverside home he shares with his wife Barbara in a rural area of Western Cape known as Wilderness.
Botha, who ruled South Africa from 1978 to 1989 during violent political convulsions, has been depicted as a sullen, bitter figure who feels betrayed and alienated since apartheid ended in 1994.
But his silence made him something of an enigma, unlike his successors de Klerk and Mandela, who have published memoirs and speak in public. There were rumors that the architect of the "total onslaught" against the liberation movement had gone senile.
An independent television company, Thuthuka Productions, interviewed Botha last year and said the film was due to be aired on SABC last week to coincide with the former president's birthday.
But the broadcaster said it had been shot outside its guidelines and editorial control.
Cliff Saunders, a journalist who worked at SABC when it was an apartheid mouthpiece and who conducted the interview with Botha, accused his former employer of kowtowing to the ANC just as it had kowtowed to the racist National party when it was in power. Writing in yesterday's Citizen, a Johannesburg daily, Saunders claimed government interference led the broadcaster to renege on verbal and written undertakings to broadcast the program.
A private broadcaster, e.tv, also declined to transmit the interview after being approached by Thuthuka Productions.
"We have seen the interview and have decided not to use it," a news editor, Patrick Conroy, told the South African Press Association. There was no sinister reason, he said. "We would have wanted to do the interview ourselves. We would have done it differently," he added.
After taking charge in 1978, Botha ramped up the battle with the ANC and other liberation movements and their allies, including assaults in Namibia, Angola and Mozambique which left thousands dead. Simultaneously the defender of white privilege softened some of apartheid's harsher measures, a strategy later compared to Ariel Sharon's Israel.